I was terribly excited when my friend George told me about Room 237, because George had turned me into a The Shining addict.
See, The Shining was a source of deep disappointment to me for years – it’s one of my favorite Stephen King books, but the movie version was cold, antiseptic, and not at all surprising. The whole point of the book was that you sympathized with Jack Torrance at first, and then he became a monster – with Jack Nicholson playing him, he was a lunatic from that first slimy, leery-eyed smile. All of the family love that I adored about the Shining, where dysfunctional people who really cared about each other were teased into murder by the machinations of the hotel, had completely disappeared.
And then George started sending me videos.
The video that first got me was this analysis of the Shining’s literally impossible architecture, where there’s an office with an outside window where there logically could be none – and watch how carefully Kubrick has the camera follow Jack into that office, as if he wanted to show you just how crazy this all was. There’s enough of those impossibilities that it becomes far more than your standard set-building shortcuts, and more like a subliminal effect Kubrick purposely built in:
And the more you know about Kubrick, the more you suspect he did it on purpose. The man was a genius with a 200 IQ, an obsessive Freudian, prone to thinking in abstract terms. He was meticulous about his sets, spending literally millions on 2001: A Space Odyssey to make sure that everything in the movie was space-ready and compliant with what NASA knew about space, even though no one else would care. He placed cans on sets by himself, arranging them for his own purposes. He gave Shelly Duvall a nervous breakdown during the filming of the Shining, forcing her to do a scene 200+ times until he was satisfied for reasons that nobody else on the set understood, setting a Guinness World Record for the number of takes. (He might have broken that record with Scatman Crothers, were it not for people yelling at him with concerns that the elderly Scatman couldn’t take it any more.)
So if there’s one filmmaker ever who would have scattered his film with obscure references to tell an alternate story, it is Kubrick – revered, popular, given big-budget movies and no Hollywood control.
And if you look closely at the Shining, there are some very weird things happening that don’t make sense. The architecture shifting is one thing; there’s clearly a body coming out of the elevator of blood in another. There’s something going on beneath the surface, and given that Kubrick liked his films to be rewatched, some of those details are meant to be seen.
But then you have the guy who claims that the movie is actually about the genocide of the Indians, based purely on the fact that in two scenes, there are Calumet cans of baking soda, and they’re turned different ways.
What I wanted from Room 237, which documents these various Shining conspiracy theories, was to take us on the emotional journey – set it up that reclusive, cryptic Kubrick was the kind of guy who did crazy shit like this. Show us the most obvious bits of mindfuckery so we’d go, “Oh, man, look! He really fucked us on that one, I never noticed – what else is there?” Then, bit by bit, show us increasingly dubious or arguable tricks of The Shining, stepping us further into conspiracy nutjob things, so by the time we get to the theory that The Shining is Kubrick’s encoded apology for faking the moon landing footage, we’re sitting there questioning everything we know. Was any of this planned? Was all of it? Where do you draw the line on Kubrick’s intention?
But no. The film is incompetent – just six faceless nutjobs rambling on their various theories. The film starts with the Calumet can theory, one of the most ludicrous, shooting its wad in one go. It barely touches on the legitimate reasons people think there might be a hidden message in the movie, ignores Kubrick mostly, giving no history, throwing out various weird bits of the Shining as if they’re all equal.
Now, some of my friends have liked Room 237 because it’s a look at conspiracy thinking, which I can see – the way these people obsess over crazy details, spending more time on an extra with no lines than all of Scatman Crothers’ scenes. But the movie starts by trashing the very idea that there might be any legitimacy in these theories to begin with, then letting these guys drone on for ninety minutes with no unifying theme. And they’re boring. I maintain you could have made a way more interesting film out of this even if you just wanted to use The Shining as a meditation on how crazy conspiracy theorists get.
The film’s so incompetent that at one point, a crying child interrupts one of the narrators. Do we cut this out of the film? No. We wait for fifteen seconds in silence, the film paused, while he tends to his kid. It’s like they weren’t even trying, man.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.